Saints and Ghosts and Monsters, Oh My!

In many Guatemalan businesses and churches, you can find a statue of a man, San Simón, also known as Maximón. He dresses in a formal suit with a large hat, and instead of a necktie he wears a traditional Mayan neckance. According to legend, he was a Spaniard who served as mayor of a small, primarily indigenous town many years ago when Guatemala was a Spanish colony. The details of the story differ based on region, but San Simón used his leadership to help the indigenous people and protect them from harm. Whether or not this actually happened, San Simón is now a cultural aspect of Guatemala. People come from all around to visit his shrines in small towns, leaving gifts of flowers, money, candles, fruit, cigars, alcohol, and more. They ask for all kinds of things, from love and luck to success and money. The only problem – he isn’t a real saint.

My teacher in the morning, Antonio, who is generally very open minded about social and cultural topics, told me that he wasn’t very religious and didn’t really believe in the power of San Simón. He worked as a tour guide for many years and visited the most famous shrine dozens of times, but he didn’t necessarily buy into the legend like others did. However, he thought that it is people’s right to believe whatever they want, and it didn’t matter to him whether someone believed in San Simón or not. He qualified that statement by saying some people go to San Simón and use magia negra, or black magic, to get what they want, which he views as bad for a village and a misuse of an important religious symbol.

My host mom, Eluvia, is an older, more religious lady. When I asked her about San Simón, she was very clear that she thought he was not a good symbol to worship because he isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church. He is called a saint, but in reality he is more like a pagan deity of the indigenous people. She felt that he had no power and that it was sinful to worship him as an idol.

My afternoon teacher, Sandra, had the most interesting insight in my opinion. She was excited when she talked about San Simón and they things that she had heard about, but repeatedly said “I’m not sure.” Eventually, I asked more directly if she believed San Simón had supernatural power or not, and she responded that yes, she did. Regardless of people’s beliefs, San Simón is an important representation of religious syncretism in Guatemala. Catholic tradition blends with indigenous superstitions and beliefs to create something altogether new that many people don’t agree with.

Sandra and I then began to talk about other supernatural experiences she’s had. She described a ghost she’d seen in her house as a young girl, and the evidence of haunting in the Maximo Nivel building that we were currently in. Like in American ghost stories, she told me that some ghosts were benevolent, while others were malevolent. One distinct different is that many American ghosts are stuck on Earth because there was something they needed to complete before they died, and they can’t pass on until they do. In Guatemala, the alleged ghosts are stuck on Earth because they died before they were supposed to, and they simply need to exist until they reach the time that they would have died. She then told me about the different superstitions surrounding ghosts and spirits. In Guatemala, the “haunted hours” were 8 PM, midnight, 8 AM, and noon. It’s odd to imagine a spooky ghost encounter at midday, but apparently it can be just as dangerous to go out at noon as midnight when it comes to ghosts. We started to talk about other legends of Guatemala, including La Llorona, El Sombrerón, and La Siguanaba. I was surprised that both Sandra and Eluvia both avidly believed in these legends, with Eluvia even telling me, very casually, of the time she heard La Llorona crying in the street when she was younger.

This investigation gave me a lot of insight into the Guatemalan mentality. Perhaps due to the mixture of Catholicism and Mayan culture, people believe in legends and spirits a lot more avidly than I had expected. Additionally, I had possibly my most successful conversation outside of the classroom with Eluvia, which gave me a lot of confidence and excitement about how far I’ve come since I first arrived in Guatemala.

Guacamol, Not Guacamole!

Every Tuesday at my language school, a restaurant caters chips and guacamol for all the students. My first week, I made the understandable mistake of calling it “guacamole”, and my teacher quickly corrected me, telling me that in Guatemala they had “guacamol”, which is different from Mexican “guacamole”. While there are differences, they taste very similar, and everyone’s insistence on the correct terminology is a bit funny to me.

Guacamol is made with an avocado base, just like guacamole. They then add a little bit of onion and oregano, and a lot of lime/lemon (the word for both is the same) juice, finishing it with a bit of salt and pepper. It is simpler than Mexican guacamole, and tastes lighter and fresher. The predominant flavors are the avocado and lime/lemon, without the heavy flavors that usually go in guacamole.

To be honest, my first impression of guacamol was that it was just a weak guacamole, but now that I understand the pride that Guatemalans have over having their own unique food. Once I stopped trying to compare it to Mexican guacamole that I’ve had, I began to appreciate guacamol for its own merits, and it’s definitely something that I could make very easily at home.

Guatemalan Thoughts on the United States

In honor of the 4th of July, I asked my teachers today about their perceptions of the United States. Unsurprisingly, both teachers had good and bad things to say about our country.

Sandra, my teacher for my private class, told me that she had an overall good impression of the United States. Many years ago, she’d seen the United States as a place with lots of money and good, successful lives. Since she started working with so many international students at Maximo Nivel, her idealistic view shifted slightly, but she still sees the US as a fundamentally good country. She believes that the American people want to friends with other countries. However, she held strong negative opinions about Trump, calling him a “racist” who uses his extremist views to garner support.

Antonio, the teacher for my group class, had similar views. He felt that the separation of church and state in the United States was a great advantage. He cited the example of capital punishment in Guatemala. Many years ago, it was legal, but the Pope interfered in the Guatemalan government, outlawing capital punishment. My teacher was of the opinion that it wasn’t right for the government to pass or change laws due to religious motives. However, he, like Sandra, felt that Trump has a negative influence on the American people, using white supremacy to change the mentality of the American people.

During my time in Guatemala, most of the opinions I have heard or seen about the United States was focused on Trump. Below is a cartoon from Antigua’s newspaper.

Furthermore, I have seen the following shirts all across town: in the market, shops, and restaurants. I suspect the trend was started by an American living in Antigua, but the sentiment still exists that “Donald, you are an ***hole.”

I think a large part of the negativity towards Trump is because of his strict immigration policies, the part of American politics that perhaps affects Guatemalans the most. However, most people I have met here are very accepting and welcoming towards Americans and don’t project those opinions onto tourists.


One fun (and challenging) aspect of learning Spanish is that every country has its own unique words. I have enjoyed learning about the unique “guatemaltequismos” of this country. Some are more like slang, used primarily by younger generations, but others are perfectly normal words that are used by everyone. Here are a few of the words I have learned (most of them start with “c” for whatever reason):

casero/a: this word normally roughly means “domestic” or “homemade”, but in Guatemala it can also mean “dear” or “lover”. This word is recognized by the Spanish language institution in Spain.

shute: nosy

cinco: in addition to meaning “five”, in Guatemala this can also mean “marble”, as in the round, glass toy. This is also an official word.

chulo/a: around the world, this means everything from “cool” to “arrogant”, but in Guatemala it means “pretty”.

cerote: in other countries this word means “wax” or simply “turd”, but in Guatemala it is used as a name for close friends that means something like “dude”. This is primarily used by younger generations.

mango/a: a very attractive person

cusha: this isn’t a slang word per se, but it is basically Guatemala’s version of moonshine. I have not tried this, nor do I want to.

chilero/a: my favorite Guatemalan word! It means “cool” and can be used to describe basically anything: people, places, objects, etc. ¡Qué chilero!


El Lago de Atitlán

I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit Lake Atitlan, one of the main tourist attractions in Guatemala. It is a giant lake about two hours from Antigua. It is famous for the hills and volcanoes the surround it, along with several small pueblos, each with its own unique character and charms.

Five other students in my house and I woke up to catch a shuttle at 5:30AM. We got to the busy town of Panajachel at about 8:00AM and made our way down to the water. There, we paid Q25 (about $3.50) to take a small boat across the lake to the town of San Pedro, where we had decided to spend the day.

In San Pedro, we stopped for breakfast at a little cafe overlooking the water. Then we found a company with kayaks, and paid Q15 each for an hour on the water. In the kayaks, we were able to enjoy the pristine grandeur of the lake. We rowed across a small inlet to a beach. There, we swam for a few minutes before paddling back.


Next, we decided to explore San Pedro. We had gone through a travel agency for our transportation to and from the lake, but we hadn’t booked any tours for our time there because we’d wanted the freedom to explore on our own. This was a great decision, because I really feel that our time in San Pedro was one of my most authentic experiences in Guatemala. We walked away from the water up through the streets. The shops there were less tourist oriented, and we stumbled upon a marketplace in the street with everything from fish and fruit to clothing and flowers. Antigua is definitely completely different from the United States, but it is in some ways a tourist bubble. Most restaurants have menus in English and Spanish, there are American restaurants like McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts, and it incredible easy to find an English speaking tourist anywhere you go. The city itself is in some ways gentrified, and doesn’t always reflect that poverty that plagues most of Guatemala. In San Pedro, however, I really felt that we, as tourists, weren’t being catered to, and that we were just there experiencing a normal life for people. We got to practice Spanish at restaurants and in the street, and grew a lot closer as a group.

Eventually, we walked back down to the water and used the same company to take us back across the water to Panajachel. This ride was a lot bumpier than the first due to a storm blowing in, but it only enhanced the fun of the day. In Panajachel, we took a shuttle back to Antigua, arriving just in time for dinner.

Fuego y Agua: My First Week in Guatemala

I’ve had an incredibly eventful first week here in Antigua, Guatemala. I arrived in Guatemala City midday on Sunday, rode with a driver from my study abroad program to Antigua, and spent the rest of the day exploring the house and settling into my home for the next six weeks.

Antigua is a beautiful city that was founded by Spaniards in the 1500s and was the capital for a long time. The whole city is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are many examples of Spanish baroque architecture. The city is surrounded by several volcanoes, some active. Volcán de Agua is especially close, as shown in the picture below.

The weather here in the highland region of Guatemala is comfortable year round, with average daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s. As a result, many buildings and houses have open air terraces and a channel for air to flow throughout the house. In my home stay there are four Guatemalans who actually live in the house and a frequently changing group of students and visitors. At the moment there is a family of five from North Carolina who are here to study Spanish and six people my age who are here to either learn Spanish or volunteer.

I was surprised at how well I was able to communicate in Spanish. I have class for six hours a day every week day, and I found that I could understand almost everything my teachers said and communicate everything I wanted to say (with a bit of help). Outside of the classroom, I’m always thrilled when I can communicate with a local, whether it be to order food or ask a question about the city. Antigua is very touristy and sometimes I am given English menus or talked to in English, but I am trying my best to use Spanish whenever I can.

I was very sick on Thursday. I don’t know if it was something I ate or just a bug, because nothing I’d eaten the day before was risky, but I had to miss my classes to recover. In the evening, our host mother made me té de manzanilla (chamomile tea, I later discovered) to soothe my stomach. I’m not a huge tea drinker, but it was really nice and helped my stomach and my chills. The next day, I was able to eat most of my breakfast and go to class.

I spent all of Saturday resting and recovering from my stomach bug, but Sunday was a much more eventful day. At nine in the morning, I went with one of the boys in the house, Liam, to where he volunteers five days a week. He works at Antigua Exotic, an animal rehabilitation center in San Felipe, a twenty five minute walk from our house. They have two birds and a kinkajou, but they specialize in reptiles. Many of their animals are rescued from illegal trade and cannot be released into the wild for different reasons. However, like many companies in Guatemala, there isn’t enough money, and they can’t buy the solar heat lamps that the reptiles need to be healthy. When I went with Liam, we took several lizards and other reptiles out of their terrariums and put them in open bins on an open patio area. We also took out some friendly snakes and held them while they soaked up the vitamin D. It was a very wholesome experience and a lot of fun, and I got to practice some Spanish with the owner who spoke no English.

Sunday morning we’d seen smoke coming out of Volcán de Fuego. It is the most consistently active volcano in the world and there are often small eruptions that cause no damage to anyone, so we weren’t concerned. It was very cool to see, but I thought nothing of it until later. I and several other students from my house were leaving a taco restaurant when we realized that the normal afternoon rain wasn’t normal: it was black with ash. I asked a waiter (in Spanish!) and he said it was from the volcanic eruption. The cars in the streets weren’t moving because their windshields were covered in dark, muddy water. Even the air smelled faintly of sulfur. We thought this was very cool, but still didn’t realize that it was anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until later back at the house that we realized this was the biggest eruption of that volcano since 1974, and several communities closer to the volcano were completely wiped out. The ash rain reached all the way past Antigua to Guatemala City and even today, Monday, the air was filled with a fine sand and everything looked gray.

It is surreal to think that I am here in Guatemala in the wake of a natural disaster and I didn’t even realize it at first. The city of Antigua is very fortunate to be a safe distance from Fuego, but I can’t imagine what would have happened if we were closer. It has been very interesting to see the Guatemalan people come together to clean up the streets and rooftops here, and I wonder what will happen in the following weeks as the air clears and the volcano becomes safe again.

In summary, I am definitely out of my comfort zone here, but it has been a thoroughly thrilling and eye-opening experience so far. I can’t wait to get even more comfortable speaking Spanish and experiencing more of the sights of Guatemala.